Ordinary Time

September 20th, 2016

Sunday night, one of our parishioners was having dinner about 110 feet from the bombing on 23rd Street–in a restaurant on 24th Street. He not only didn’t hear the blast, but he went on to enjoy a leisurely meal and only learned of the bomb when he left the restaurant! Even then, he said most of the surrounding streets seemed to be displaying business as usual.

The church refers to the many Sundays between the Feast of Pentecost in the spring and the beginning of the Season of Advent in late November or early December as “Ordinary Time.” The lessons and prayers set for these Sundays are generic, nothing particular to the season, “ordinary.”

So the city is wracked by bombs and life goes on. Terror has become ordinary. God help us.–J. Douglas Ousley

9/11 @ 15 in NYC

September 13th, 2016

Preaching last Sunday, I realized that many of the people who were in church weren’t in NYC 15 years ago on September 11. Given that they didn’t experience the attacks of that day at first hand, they were remarkably attentive. 9/11 continues to unite us as a people and a nation.

Our well-attended service was, I believe, an appropriately solemn and devout observance. I mentioned political and military action as well as the need to seek peace, and I received no protests that the sermon was biased.

God who was our help in ages past remains our hope in the uncertain years to come. —J. Douglas Ousley

Numbers Game

September 7th, 2016

A couple of days ago, I was discussing church attendance with a parishioner. He observed that many people seem no longer to feel under the obligation to attend church every Sunday. Even Roman Catholics don’t worry about committing a mortal sin if they fail to go to mass. Even devout Protestants “honor the Sabbath” with all sorts of leisure activities besides worship.

In fact, the new attendance norm could explain why church attendance has lagged in recent years. If a person goes to church once a month instead of four times, her attendance record declines by 75%.

I myself see no problem with the every-Sunday old rule. It follows the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and it encourages regular sharing of the Body of Christ, as commended in the New Testament. But people today seem to need more than just duty to bring them to church. Something for all of us concerned about the future of Christian religion to think about. —J. Douglas Ousley

‘Twas Ever Thus Dept.

August 29th, 2016

Michael J. Krasulski, an historian writing about Philadelphia churches recently noted that one of the parishes was complaining that no one volunteered for its annual strawberry festival. The same day, the historian discovered a letter to the parish about the lack of volunteers for their strawberry festival–in 1927!

The historian also found an article in a church magazine “lamenting how difficult it had become to recruit choirboys because of the ever-increasing demands upon children’s time and that of their parents.” That article was published in 1898.

The bottom line is: Christians–adults and children–always have lots to do. We have many competing interests besides religion. All the more reason to remember that “This is the day that the Lord hath made…”

J. Douglas Ousley

Proof of God?

August 24th, 2016

During my last vacation days of the summer, I enjoyed reading David Gelertner’s The Tides of Mind. Gelertner is a professor of computer science at Yale, a pioneer in the Internet and predictor of the rise of social media, among many other accomplishments in tech fields.

His book, though, is about what he calls the “spectrum” of the mind, ranging from reasoning at the top of the spectrum to dreaming at the bottom. The ideas are much more complicated than my summary indicates, but the writing is lucid and the reader is given much to think about. For example, I had never reflected on the peculiar state of consciousness that we have just before we sleep.

Gelertner is apparently a practicing Jew and there are hints of his faith here and there in the book. I”ll close with one of his most provocative comments: “I think that, in truth, nearly all of us do believe in God, although we don’t realize it ourselves…The original, most basic repressed idea of the modern psyche is our belief in God. The fact that we do believe proves nothing, except how much mind fashions change, and how much they matter. It’s just interesting…”–J. Douglas Ousley


Religion and Politics, Encore

August 8th, 2016

At a Supper Group meeting last night, I suggested that we avoid discussing the upcoming presidential election. I knew there were strongly held opinions scattered among the members of the group.

The group agreed with my request. However, the conversation still kept veering off toward politics; the words, “Trump” and “Clinton” kept appearing. Several times, I had to abruptly change the subject. The topic seemed inescapable.

One member of the Supper Group reminded us of the general admonition to avoid discussion of religion and politics. Now as part of a church program, we weren’t required to avoid religion! But this election is making it very hard to prevent arguments about politics, even among members of the same congregation. —J. Douglas Ousley

Revival Coming?

August 1st, 2016

A friend of mine who has a daily podcast, the Andrew Klavan Show, believes that a religious revival is coming. He bases his speculation on the alarming decline of values in the West. He believes that only with a renewed commitment to religion can our culture survive.

I have no idea whether this prediction will come true; Mr. Klavan expects to see evidence within five years. It’s certainly a nice thought.

Meanwhile, what is most disturbing in our own church is the continuing lethargy. At the national level, at least, there is little apparent initiative to try new programs that might lead to church growth.

On the other hand, a few seminaries seem to have been attracting younger and more able students, which bodes well for the distant future. Our own diocese is in the middle of a strategic planning program, with church growth as one aim. And of course religion–often of the fundamentalist variety–is growing in influence throughout most of the non-Western world.

I hope my friend is right. And I hope that if we do indeed see a revival of religious practice, that it’s the sort of faith that we can identify with. —J. Douglas Ousley

The View from Madison Avenue

July 26th, 2016

Since Incarnation has been located on the legendary street of advertisers since 1852, we naturally think in terms of how we as a church are perceived by potential “customers.”

What does the Episcopal Church brand say to people who pass by our churches? In the eyes of the average American, what do we stand for? How does our organization differ in values and purpose from, say, the Girl Scouts or the YMCA? And what can we as individuals do to promote our brand?

I have no easy answers to these questions. But I do think that promoting the brand has to begin at the top. In the Church of England, there are many new initiatives intended to promote the growth of parishes: Fresh Expressions, Messy Church, and leadership training, for example.

Granted, the C of E is much more centrally governed than the Episcopal Church. Still, it would be nice to see some new programs from the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council that put our name out to the public and make people want to come through our doors. —J. Douglas Ousley

Death on the Azure Coast

July 20th, 2016

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal published a picture of employees of the Hotel Le Negresco in Nice, France. They were standing on the Promenade des Anglais, where 84 people died last week, run over by a mad lone terrorist.

Two years ago, my wife and I stayed at the Negresco when we visited Nice; we often walked along the Promenade “of the English,” which is a block from the English church I have assisted various times over the years.

An additional reason to be upset by such suffering is the way such tragedies are mounting up. The official French mourning period of three days was hardly over when three police were assassinated in Baton Rouge, and the media raced off to cover another horrible event. Last week, a network news producer told me how she and a colleague were looking at “raw” news feeds last week and found themselves depressed.

It is with slight but significant relief that we can at least offer prayers for the victims of violence. That’s one thing we can do. God help us. —J. Douglas Ousley

Novel Ideas

July 8th, 2016

I love to read novels–so much that I confine my reading to my Thursday day-off and summer vacations. The rest of the time, professional reading has a priority.

Happily, a recent vacation gave me time to enjoy great fiction, including vintage a Mickey Spillane tough-guy detective story, Dressed to Kill, and a new thriller by Lisa Lutz, The Passenger. I grant that such works are certainly “escapist”–with exciting, impossible coincidences and superhuman talents. But these works do challenge our imaginations. The Passenger, for example raises fascinating questions about guilt and innocence–topics not uninteresting to the Christian.

Like films, novels challenge the imagination, and in so doing, challenge the soul. —J. Douglas Ousley